Automatic or Manual 4WD? The Answer May Surprise You


The debate between automatic vs manual for four-wheel driving is something I and fellow four-wheel drivers have been discussing for years. So, after doing some research and building on my experience of years of four-wheel driving, I finally came to a conclusion.

When analysing every aspect of four-wheel driving, ultimately, modern automatics are the best option for less experienced drivers because they are easier and safer to drive in many situations. However, if you have the skills, manuals are more fun to drive, give you a greater feeling of control over the vehicle and have some distinct advantages over the automatic when four-wheel driving.

The battle between manual and automatic couldn’t be closer, with both options having their own strengths and weaknesses in different off-road situations.

Before you continue, If your new to 4wd and offroading or are not sure what equipment to take out with you on your adventures, make sure to check out the Off Road Aussies Essential 4×4 Equipment List where I have taken the time to review and recommend the equipment I use.

If you kit yourself out correctly you will be able to tackle everything that your new adventures will throw at you.

General Capabilities

When it comes to deciding between a manual or an automatic, each has its own pros and cons in different scenarios. At the end of the day, it comes down to personal preference.

Modern automatic transmissions are ideal for those seeking convenience and comfort. They’re easy to drive and great for situations in which you need to drive at a slow speed. But when it comes to intensive driving, an automatic is more likely to overheat and can be harder to get out of a sticky situation.

A major upside to manual vehicles is that their fuel consumption is more efficient than most automatics of the same make and model, giving you more kilometres per litre. It’s also easier to free the vehicle if it’s bogged. A downside to manuals is that the clutch won’t last forever and it has more wearable parts than an automatic.

The debate between automatics and manuals will probably never come to a real conclusion, with owners on each side firmly claiming they have the better option. This really shows that both options can offer an incredible four-wheel driving experience.

Crossing Rivers/Water

Make sure to maintain a constant speed when entering the water

Anyone who has driven through a river crossing knows the feeling of anticipation as they wait on the river’s banks, debating if they can make the trek across without getting bogged or swept away. So, do you have a better chance with a manual or with an automatic?

When crossing a river in a manual you need to put it in second gear low and just go for it. Don’t stop or change gears the entire way. If you change gears once you’re in the water you can get water in the clutch, which could cause slippage or trouble with the clutch later down the track.

When crossing a river in an automatic vehicle, you want to choose second or third gear instead of putting it in drive. The upside to driving automatic is that you can change gears or stop and no water will get in the gear box. This is why automatics are ultimately better for river crossings.

Driving Uphill

When driving uphill in steep terrain, both automatic and manual options have advantages and downsides.

One advantage to driving an automatic is that if you get stuck on a hill, it’s no drama, as you can still drive forward or backwards, and you won’t lose momentum from playing with a clutch. A downside, however, is that you can’t control the gears. You want to maintain a steady speed until you reach the top of the hill, and the vehicle may try to change gears on you before you reach that point. Overall, driving automatic uphill is still a safe option.

Driving manual uphill can also be a safe option, but it requires good skills to keep the clutch at the perfect spot so you can take off without too much wheel spin or going backwards. You can also creep up the hill by putting it in second gear. A downside to using the manual is that if you haven’t mastered the technique, you may lose momentum and slide backwards when you try to pick up speed towards the top of the hill.

Driving Downhill

Driving downhill is a whole different story to driving uphill.

With an automatic, going downhill is literally one of its biggest downfalls. You’ll need to ride the break the entire time, and the vehicle may change out of a low gear to gain speed. This can cause overheating and wearing down of your breaks. However, if you’re driving a modern automatic, the vehicle will have downhill assist which will give you better control.

Manuals, on the other hand, are built for driving downhill. You can use your engine breaking in first gear low, which most diesel four-wheel drives are perfect for. The vehicle will crawl its way down the hill, so there’s no need to use the breaks. Without a doubt, driving a manual is your best option for driving downhill in steep terrain.

Driving on Sand or Mud

With so many beautiful, sprawling beaches in Australia, four-wheel driving on sand is extremely popular and fun. But, if you aren’t an experienced driver, you could easily end up in a tricky situation such as rolling sideways down a sand dune or getting bogged and being swept away by the tide (which happens more often than you might think!).

Driving a heavy vehicle on soft sand seems like a bad combination. That’s why it’s necessary to deflate your tyres to disperse the weight of the vehicle and increase the tread size, which will decrease your chances of getting bogged.

The key to driving on sand is to keep your momentum, which requires selecting a low gear. Not using low range can place further pressure on clutches and transmissions. The biggest advantage to driving an automatic on soft sand is that you are able to maintain your momentum because changing gears is so smooth.

However, if you get bogged in the sand or mud, you’ll want to be driving a manual. The reason for this is you can keep the vehicle in the same gear when you need to spin tyres to clear tread blocks. Sometimes you need to stay in the same gear to flick the mud or wet sand off the tyres, but an automatic may decide to change gears which can throw off your vehicle’s recovery.

Rock Crawling Capabilities

The key to driving on rocks is taking it slow

Rock crawling or driving over harsh terrain can be daunting for newbie four-wheel drivers, as it’s one of the most challenging forms of off-roading. The most important thing to remember is this: take it slow.

It can take twice as long to cover ground when traveling over challenging rocks, but both automatics and manuals can get the job done with proper wheel placement, patience and planning.

For those who aren’t experts, driving an automatic is a much easier and safer option for rocky terrain. An advantage to automatics is that you can put the vehicle in drive and control the amount of force you need to get over a rock before the gear box gives it motion.

Rock crawling in a manual can be a lot of fun if you know exactly what you are doing. You do need to play with the clutch quite a bit which can wear it out, but I personally find that I have more control driving a manual over big rocks than I do with an automatic.

Whether you’re driving an automatic or a manual, make sure you have a spotter standing outside the vehicle to ensure you’re not driving into trouble. Similar to driving on sand, you should lower tyre pressure to ensure you get full traction.

Related Questions

What are the best four-wheel drive tracks in Australia?

Australia has an array of awesome four-wheel drive tracks scattered around the country, but my personal favourites are: the Cape York Track, the Gibb River Road and the Great Beach Drive.

The Cape York Track stretches through northern Queensland for 848 kilometres and has a variety of swimming holes along the way.

The Gibb River Road is the perfect taste of the outback with hiking trails, river crossings and hidden waterholes scattered throughout the 930 kilometre route.

The Great Beach Drive is 380 kilometres of pristine beach and world heritage rainforests along Queensland’s coast.

Why are automatic transmissions less fuel efficient than manuals?

There are three main factors that make automatic transmissions less fuel efficient than manuals:

Firstly, they weigh more.

Secondly, the torque converter is less efficient.

Thirdly, they use more petrol when upshifting or downshifting because, unlike the driver in a manual, they are unable to predict what’s ahead and therefore switch gears later, using more power and more petrol.

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